Brandi Campbell started working in strip clubs as a college student. Nine years later, she started filing lawsuits claiming she’d been cheated out of tips, sexually harassed by co-workers and fired when she complained.

Campbell, who’s been working as a dancer for 12 years, recently settled National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaints she had made against the Seville Club and Déjà Vu in downtown Minneapolis.

Dancers, she said, “need to be recognized as people — just like any other worker.”

Across the country, dancers are suing the clubs they work for, saying they’re treated as independent contractors but have the right to the pay and benefits of regular employees. Their advocacy has gained traction in Minneapolis, where some on the pro-labor City Council want to improve conditions for workers in the 14 venues that hire dancers.

The ordinance changes haven’t been written, but they will focus on city health regulations of clubs. City Council Member Cam Gordon said he expects the council could take action in early 2018.

The question of whether entertainers should be treated as employees has continued to create a rift between entertainers and the clubs they work for, and among entertainers themselves. And though entertainers have been suing clubs successfully for years, those still working in the clubs say not much has changed.

Early this year, Minneapolis Health Department inspectors conducted a sweep of the city’s 17 licensed adult entertainment establishments and found that bodily fluids were present at 11 of them. Those venues were declared a public health nuisance under state law and were reinspected last month.

A city-commissioned report by University of Minnesota researchers showed dancers face hazards ranging from injuries sustained during performances to physical and sexual assault. It’s particularly bad in VIP rooms, where patrons pressure dancers to cross the line into paid sex, sometimes using violence when that doesn’t happen.

The university report coupled with the Health Department’s findings prompted city officials to examine how Minneapolis regulates strip clubs. The city has solicited feedback both from entertainers and club owners.

“The overarching goal is to look at what we can do to better protect the workers that are working in these establishments,” Gordon said.

High stakes for clubs

Originally from Chicago, Campbell, 31, spent about a year starting in 2015 working at Twin Cities strip clubs. She sued four clubs and took complaints about two — Seville and Déjà Vu — to the NLRB.

Campbell worked at Seville for about five months, and in that time was verbally and physically harassed by both co-workers and managers, she said. She lost a sexual harassment suit, but her claims of being financially exploited were more persuasive to the court and the NLRB. Dancers are typically paid directly by patrons, and the dancers pay a fee to the strip club, as well as tipping the staff. Campbell complained that she qualified as an employee but was classified as an independent contractor — and lost tips as a result.

The NLRB complaint against Seville resulted in a non-monetary settlement. The NLRB complaint against Déjà Vu resulted in a cash settlement that Campbell would not disclose.

A spokesman for RCI Hospitality Holdings Inc., Seville’s parent company, declined to comment.

After Seville fired Campbell, she headed to Déjà Vu. But after three weeks on the job, she finished a shift — which included paying a portion of her tips to the club and other employees — and was told, without any explanation, not to come back.

As lawsuits continue to crop up nationwide and more entertainers prevail in court, it could spell trouble for clubs, said David Allen Larson, a labor and employment law professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. If clubs have misclassified their employees as independent contractors, he said, they could be liable for costs including unpaid taxes and overtime pay.

“I think they should definitely have some anxiety about it,” Larson said.

This year, a federal class action lawsuit against Déjà Vu out of Detroit ended with a multimillion dollar settlement and an option for entertainers to choose whether they want to be classified as employees or independent contractors.

Déjà Vu is not new to class actions. Dan Boivin, a former attorney with Meshbesher and Spence, represented about 160 Déjà Vu dancers in Minneapolis in a 1994 lawsuit. As part of the resulting settlement, the club had to compensate dancers for time they’d already worked. But that treatment didn’t continue for other employees, he said.

“My understanding is the club … agreed to treat them differently, but then changed after a while and went back to their old ways,” Boivin said.

Peter Hafiz, who with his family operates several downtown clubs and bars including Déjà Vu and Dreamgirls, could not be reached for comment. Dennis Johnson, local counsel for Déjà Vu and Dreamgirls, said he hasn’t yet started hammering out how the clubs will accommodate the Detroit ruling.

Weighing the pros and cons

When entertainers talk about the potential benefits of being classified as employees — health insurance, protection from harassment, the ability to unionize — they also note the drawbacks.

As employees, they might lose scheduling flexibility. They’d potentially earn less, if their pay went to an hourly minimum wage rather than tips. And to earn benefits like health insurance, they’d have to work full-time — something that isn’t necessarily possible, given the nature of the work.

Ilana Turner has danced for more than a decade, and she’s drawing on her experience for graduate work at the University of Minnesota, where she’s a Ph.D. student studying labor issues in the stripping industry.

“Courts usually decide that dancers are employees because of the level of control clubs exert over how and when dancers work, but also because their work is necessary for the day-to-day operation of the business,” Turner said. “Despite all these rulings on the side of the dancer, it has not created a sea change in the industry to classifying dancers as employees.”

“Becoming an employee doesn’t always mean that we’re treated better, especially because labor laws and labor organizing strategies really weren’t developed with strip clubs in mind,” she said.

When Campbell reached the NLRB settlements, she posted links on her blog to images of signs each club was required to post with details about employees’ rights under federal law.

“I hope they like this poster I got for them,” she wrote.

Campbell left Minnesota last year, but is still dancing. She’s planning to eventually make the switch to another career — in construction.